Blogging our way through Eastern Europe
Today was a highly anticipated day for a lot of us, and I know that the kids assigned to post about today will sum it up very well, but I wanted to talk about my personal reaction to the things we saw today.
It has to be understood that we as a class of students have learned so much about this history that it’s why we get this amazing opportunity. We get to understand so deeply that we go to witness the history second hand, as well as knowing that we are the future generation that determines if places like Auschwitz/Birkenau stays in the minds and memories of the world. I think we were genuinely affected walking into Auschwitz I, or at least we tried very hard to be, but I personally felt slightly detached, whether it be because of the tour guides, the sheer amount of people, or whatever other excuse I could make.
Were we shocked? Yes. Were we shocked to the point of complete silence? No. We were mostly unsatisfied, we wanted reflection and craved an understanding that I don’t think we could have gotten until we got to Birkenau.
Birkenau was something that, walking in, wrenched your heart to the point of silence. We were finally shocked to the point of silence. We looked out at a camp that was expansive and beyond our comprehension, and it helped, but I think the most important part of our personal reactions was how much we could relate and comprehend.
These reactions was especially strong near the gas chamber remains, for obvious reasons, but more personal triggers were crucial here. I, as an Italian person, saw an inscription in Italian in the main memorial and stood in front of it, crying, for at least a few minutes.
We looked out into a field of ashes remains of hundreds of thousands of people, which was overrun with flowers, and our friend Aaron recited a Jewish prayer, some friends paid their respects with stones on the gravestones placed in front of these important sites, and I cried again, again because I could understand, I could relate to how it could affect me as a teenager with 70+ years of hindsight on this.
One might ask why, a few hours after Auschwitz/Birkenau, most of our people were on the dance floor in a Polish wedding hall, dancing their hearts out and laughing and singing. Is it disrespect? A lack of understanding of the things we had witnessed? I don’t think so, though it could easily be construed that way. I’m choosing to believe that we, as a group, had too much emotional confusion, too much lack of satisfaction in these camps, and that had to come out of us in the form of song and dance.
That doesn’t mean the camps didn’t have their desired effect, actually quite the opposite. The camps symbolize pure, unadulterated confusion, you’re often left with more questions than answers, and that’s important, because the Holocaust raises some of the most important questions of human history: what is evil, what are the extents people will go to for an idea, etc.
Speaking to some other people in our group, they also feel that they expected more direct crying and sadness and overwhelming emotions because it’s what they had expected for them. The fact that this didn’t happen in the way some thought it would does not mean we are inhuman, it means these camps are their own entities, these symbols for human tragedy, they stand there, as preserved as possible, and it is our choice how we react.
I definitely don’t think anyone will forget what it looked like to scan the extent of Birkenau and crumble inside, or how it felt to stand in front of a single destroyed underground room where up to 2000 people had been killed and stand silent, or stand crying. I’m very proud of our group for having individual reactions, and I think it’s important that we had a dance party and we’re all singing on the bus as I write this, it means we have a processing method that turns emotions into something less confusion and acts as a release, or an outlet.
I doubt anyone will have read this all, because I have a reputation for long posts, but I hope this helped you understand how much I appreciated the Auschwitz camps today, how much pain we were able to process, and how well today went for me (except for maybe the Auschwitz cafe lunch) Dzien dobry!
I don’t have a hot take on Auschwitz. I think what everyone else thinks about the subject. There’s no real nuanced way to describe it, so I’ll just say what i saw.
So, today we went to Auschwitz. It is located in the Polish town of Oswiecim, which is actually where my great-grandmother was born before the advent of the Nazi regime.
The first thing I was told about the camp was that it is not just one camp. While only two are still standing, there were three camps in Auschwitz by the end of World War II. Auschwitz I was the original camp, and it was a small labor camp based in former Polish army barracks. Auschwitz II (Birkenau) was a huge death camp that was erected later in the war. The third Auschwitz camp, also known as the Buna-Werke, was a labor camp that worked in service of a rubber factory owned by IG Farben. Only Auschwitz I and II are still there.
Auschwitz I is fairly small, and has become a museum. We toured throughout repurposed barracks showing the history of the camp and life of the prisoners. Probably the most disturbing parts of that camp were rooms displaying tons of human hair and shoes (see photo above). Actual tons; thousands of pounds.
Possibly the most moving part, however, was the museum devoted to those whose lives were torn apart. We entered into a room with footage of Jews from around Europe before World War II. We saw parties, family pictures, and children singing Hebrew songs that I recognized. The exhibit led us to the books of names, a huge book containing the names of over 4 million victims of the Holocaust. Almost 2 million still remain unidentified. Going through the book, I found two of my family names, Seifert and Wert. While all of my direct extended family made it out before the horrors, I would assume that some of my relatives were murdered. Each name took up almost half a page.
Birkenau is almost in its original state and it is gigantic. It lies on over two square miles of land, which includes barracks, showers and the ruins of gas chambers. Birkenau had two sets of gas chambers and crematoria. One set was blown up by the Nazis in retreat, but the other set was destroyed by Jewish Sonderkommandos in an uprising.
We also saw the women’s barracks, which housed two women we have discussed in class: Rena Finder, who was saved by Oskar Schindler, and Anja Spiegelman, who is documented in Maus.
I think the most poignant moment for me was when we stood at the edge of a field where a pyre once burned and the ashes of over 300 thousand Jews now lie. While we stood there, some of us recited the Sh’ma, the most important Jewish prayer.
Today was the day we went to Auschwitz. We were all very nervous about this day and had prepared ourselves to be emotional messes. However the day did not go as planned, but let me start at the beginning. My roommate Emily and I woke up to my 6:30 am alarm feeling better than we had in a while. The hotel rooms were amazing and we both went to bed by 10:30 so we woke up feeling refreshed and recharged. After packing up our room and putting our luggage in the bus we headed to breakfast. The spread this morning was great and we all really enjoyed breakfast.
Although we all enjoyed breakfast as it started to get closer to the time to go to Auschwitz the nervous tone felt almost tangible. After a quick pep talk from Ms. Freeman we headed over.
I’m a very emotional person and I expected to be a mess, but throughout the day there was minimal crying on my part. We were in Auschwitz I for the first part of the morning and as we headed toward the infamous ARBEIT MACH FREI sign I felt more strange than sad. Our group had split between two tour guides and based on what I have heard from my friends my group had the better tour guide. He was very nice and did a good job, but as we traveled through Auschwitz it felt more like a museum than I had expected and all the rearranged photos and other tour groups caused me to feel almost detached from the situation. I felt incredibly strange during the tour, but not as sad as I had expected.
However, there were plenty of moments that made me feel very close to crying like this photo of people of their way to their death. They were mostly children and there was this little boy and his face just stuck with me. Also, the rooms with hair cut from the victims and the shoes (see my photo above) made us all feel very overwhelmed, as well as the exhibit with information about the victims before the war and the book of 4 million names, but something interrupted these feelings every time. There were specific moments that really stuck out to me like when our tour guide showed us the example food of what the victims were supposed to receive and said that the food was, “too little to survive, too much to die immediately” or when he told us that out of the 230,000 children that went through Auschwitz 700 survived. The experience was defiantly worthwhile and I felt very different and strange after, but not as I had expected.
After our tour through Auschwitz I we headed to lunch. Lunch was an experience. The restaurant was really crowded and overwhelmed by the presence of 52 hungry people. Somehow they made soup really complicated by giving everyone a bowl with the contents on the soup and then pouring the liquid (or broth as Sydney corrected me). This whole process took way too long, but it ended up working out and the food was really good.
We then headed to Auschwitz II or Birkenau (it translates roughly to birch tree in English). I expected this camp to make me weep and I was definitely more emotional here, but I did not weep. At this camp we were guided by Ms.Freeman instead of tour guides and that combined with the rawness of this camp affected me more. We walked around the whole camp and something I did not expect was that it was beautiful. The grounds where the camp were were lush and full of life, in the back towards the woods were one of the most beautiful and peaceful places. This made the whole experience more strange because I expected it to be dark, damp, dirty— almost black and white, but the camp was full of color.
We walked around different barracks, to the remnants of the gas chambers, to the train tracks, and around the memorials. There was this moment when Aaron and Rachel gave a prayer at this memorial by the ashes of over 300,000 unidentified victims. It started to rain lightly and many of us, including myself, were overcome with emotion. It didn’t matter what religious affiliation you were or who or what you believed in, in that moment everyone shared this feeling. It is too hard to put into words, but in that moment we all felt it.
We also went into the sauna building where prisoners registered, did laundry, showered (in an actual shower), and there were copies of the photos stolen from the prisoners. The photos were also very emotional and made us all realize how different each person in the camps were and after that I think we all realized how human each person passed through the camp was and that there was more to their story than just what happened to them.
After leaving Birkenau we were all processing and in very serious, somber moods. Ms. Freeman told us we were heading to the basement of a monastery to see an art exhibition by a survivor of the Holocaust. Art isn’t really my thing (sorry Ms.Freeman!) so I did not think I would be extremely impacted by this exhibition, however it was absolutely incredible. It is really hard to explain, but this survivor was 70 years old and he had a stroke. He had refused to talk about his experiences at Auschwitz, but the doctor told him that if he wanted to heal he had to do something for his body and his mind. He began drawing the most amazing representations of his feeling and emotions about the Holocaust. I could spend hours talking about it, but it’s really hard to explain it in words, honestly you have to see it in real life and if you ever get the chance you have to.
Finally, at the end of the day we drove to Kraków and stopped for dinner. We had an excellent group dinner and then had a dance party to help us all process and relax a little bit.
Overall, the day was educational, emotional, and intense. I can’t wait to continue on this journey with these incredible people.
There is a very distinct, almost sweet smell that suffocates the entire camp, particularly around the ruins. Everywhere the eye can see is lush greenery and a very strong sense of spring in the air, which completely contradicts the mind’s moral reaction to the setting. Nature, at the end of the day, takes back what rightfully belongs to it; even in a place where millions once came to die, things continue to bloom. It’s the earth’s satire in the face of man’s evil.
One cannot comprehend the immensity of this place simply by reading it in a textbook, it is from only the pain in both your heart and feet that might make you understand. We didn’t even get hit with emotions immediately. It wasn’t until we stood in a huge empty clearing where the ashes of 300,000 people were disposed, listening to Aaron recite the shema that we were all affected.
A lot of people said that Auschwitz I was nothing like they expected it to be; it was far smaller and really quite disconnected from the history since it had been turned into a museum, complete with a cafe, guided tours, and a gift shop. It was bunk 27 and the huge mounds of human hair that was collected from prisoners that really tore at the heart strings. Baby’s clothes and shoes. Hairbrushes, scissors, even tins of lotion. They robbed these innocent people of everything they had until all they had was their life. Then they took that too. They are now remembered with stones on tombstones, and as a popular Israeli song goes: “There are men with hearts of stone, and stones with the hearts of men.”
Auschwitz is a mixture of old and new, preserved and renovated. While some buildings have remained in their original state, the vast majority that are used for tours have been completely repurposed into museums and exhibitions. Although there’s something a bit eerie about using a fancy modern bathroom built inside of a former prisoners barrack, the overall experience was extremely powerful.
After walking through the gates holding the inscription, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, we walked through a series of barracks and exhibitions. Rooms were filled with the stolen possessions of Jews and other prisoners. Shoes, hair, pots and pans, glasses. All were preserved in giant piles filling up entire rooms.
The most captivating building was an exhibition dedicated to the Jews of the Holocaust: their culture, heritage, life, and death. Home videos taken by Jewish family’s before the war played on all 4 walls of one of the rooms. On the second floor, survivor testimony played on loop.
Also kept in the same exhibition was “The Book of Names”. This massive, multi-thousand page book spanned the length of the entire room. It was harrowing to look through the large pages, filled with millions of names of people murdered in the Holocaust. Familiar names popped out on each page, and I was able to find around 20 people matching my own last name and mother’s maiden name. While these people may not have been direct relatives, it was nonetheless a strange feeling.
We spent the second half of the day in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Compared to Auschwitz I, Birkenau was massive, and it’s the largest graveyard in the world. Throughout the day, everything felt a bit off. On the one hand I was walking on the same grounds millions of Jews died on less than a century ago. On the other hand, the scenery is filled with lush grass, chirping birds, and plentiful tourists.
For me the most powerful place at Birkenau was the field of ashes located at the back of the camp. A field that’s both beautiful and tranquil. On the field are flowers, trees, and grass: all of which sprouted from the ashes of hundreds of thousands of human beings.
It’s hard to explain or put into writing the feelings that went through my head or the emotions I felt walking through the camps. At times I felt angry, upset, confused, intrigued, and tearful. Nothing was ever straight forward, nor should it have been. I’m incredibly thankful for this experience and look forward for all the many more to come in the next 7 days.
Greetings from Poland!
Today has been a whirlwind of emotions and experiences that seem almost paradoxical but all the more meaningful. We started off our day by heading across the street from our lovely hotel to Auschwitz. Although many of us felt that the museum-oriented aspects of it caused feelings of detachment, I still felt chills while walking past barracks and especially when standing before the sign: “Arbeit macht frei". Some of the most disturbing instances for me were witnessing the mounds of human hair and shoes of young and old people. It really allowed me to witness the depth of such dehumanization among all victims. Also, nothing could be more heart wrenching and terrifying than walking into a former gas chamber/crematorium. I felt so mentally weighed down and saddened, and these feelings still linger. These feelings were also similar to the way I felt when visiting the Euthanasia center a couple days ago.
Next we went to Birkenau, and for me, this fit the intimidating and gruesome nature of the concentration camp setting that I had always pictured in my head. This atmosphere was very eerie and overwhelming at times, yet I am especially grateful to rely on the comfort from our squad. One of the most heart wrenching experiences for me was when we all stood in silence before the field in Birkenau which was a mass grave for over 30,000 unidentified bodies. As we stood here, Aaron and Rachel said a Jewish prayer to us, that was very reflective and moved me and many of my classmates to tears. This was such a unifying moment for us as a group and has only increased my appreciation for our squad.
Later into the night, we dined at Katzel Kajasowka where we feasted on duck, Fanta, and cheesecake, to name a few. Soon enough, we cranked the aux and tore up the dance floor. I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Howard and Mr. Gavin are dancing legends of the night. Then we concluded our day by taking the bus to our hotel, while singing and rapping the entire way—to the chaperones’ dismay, of course.
After today, I’ve come to realize that we can all rely on each other for emotional support and processing these intense moments, yet we also have a lot of fun hanging out and doing cha cha slide together :)
I have gotten really close with many new people so far and I’m excited for what’s to come on this journey!!